Strong Towns, the book and the namesake organization, resulted from civil engineer and urban planner Charles Marohn’s discovery that the highway projects he designed showed a negative return on investment. The local taxes generated by new road construction and expansion didn’t even cover the costs of the roads themselves, much less any other city services. Marohn calculated, for example, that it would take 37 years’ worth of property-tax revenue from all the houses on his own cul de sac just to recoup the street’s initial cost. This realization inspired Marohn to argue that urban sprawl is a financial loser.
According to Marohn, the current approach to suburban development is a “growth Ponzi scheme.” New developments, like housing subdivisions or industrial parks, require little maintenance for many years after their initial construction. This allows the municipal tax revenues they produce to be used for other purposes. But over time, infrastructure inevitably needs repairs, and, too often, a city can’t cover the cost. If the city goes ahead with the maintenance work, it will need to boost economic growth to generate the necessary revenue to pay for it.
A similar challenge arises on the private side. Unlike traditional communities, which organically form in increments, modern neighborhoods are commonly built in large, uniform blocks intended as permanent developments. Zoning and building codes, along with restrictive covenants, ensure this outcome. Today’s housing developments, for instance, might feature hundreds of homes—separated into various pods—that collectively sell within a narrow price range. Since these homes get built at once, they require major maintenance, such as roof replacement, at around the same time. Homeowners confront significant repair bills, but some cannot afford the upkeep, so the neighborhood can start to look worn down.
This convergence of public and private redevelopment costs—along with changes in market demand for building and neighborhood types that disproportionately affect “monoculture” developments—has contributed to the decline of many outer-urban and inner-suburban areas across America. In modern suburbia, dead malls and rising poverty levels bring municipal fiscal distress; government incentives helped trigger this pattern. “Today, the public sector backstops almost all private land development,” Marohn observes, “either by direct investments up front or by assuming the long-term maintenance obligations before the tax base has matured.” Marohn believes that a significant amount of U.S. infrastructure will be decommissioned due to its high cost.
What Marohn is getting at is the difference between organic and artificial human communities. We’ve been building “artificially” for 70+ years, and the results are the sort of communities Marohn is warning will be financially unsustainable—if not in themselves, then in the supporting infrastructure that they require. We need to think about making strong towns and communities by first unmaking the sprawl that has led to so much of our disconnectedness today—our commutes, our lack of town centers, our lack of relationship with those who should be our neighbors, our tax liabilities, etc.
Our older way of developing a place, which is incrementally, not only ensure that we have a real “center of gravity” in our communities in terms of town squares and places for sharing with one another in meaningful ways, but also that things don’t break at the same time, and that communities support their own needs as much as possible. We call that localism, but it might as well be called conservatism. It was the progressive social architects and engineers that gave us the problems we face.
I’m planning to read “Strong Towns” before the end of the year.